Inspirazione! : Serving a New Master...Or Not!

Perhaps you have heard the phrase “many teachers, one master.” It is a saying of respect, recognizing the feeling of having learned something extraordinary and valuable from one true mentor—and that is how I have felt for many years about my former teacher. I studied with him until he died suddenly several years ago. His death came as a great shock and disappointment to his many devoted students. I had been studying with him for about five years altogether (a couple of years before leaving to go to conservatory and the rest after graduation).

At the time of his death, I had studied with three other teachers in my life. One had been very helpful, but had seemed a bit too personally controlling, encouraging me to explore a particular avenue of spiritual development that he practiced. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready at that time to delve more deeply into my psyche—and perhaps I had an intuition that his path was not the right one for me. The other two were very nice and seemed competent, but I didn’t grow much vocally under their care. So I feel that only one teacher played a significant role in my becoming a singer of any skill and competence. To quote another member of the studio at his memorial, he was “the architect of my dreams.” His students were grateful, because he helped us to realize our potential to be better singers.

After he died, I felt lost. His death coincided with several other major losses in my life, and I went through a period of serious reevaluation of my priorities. When I began to come back to a stronger sense of self, I didn’t feel drawn to study with other teachers. I took a lesson here or there with this teacher or that, but no one’s teaching spoke to me or seemed an improvement on what I was working on myself, based on what I had learned from my mentor. So I continued to work mostly on my own, coaching with various people, recording myself frequently, and doing Vaccai and Concone exercises for several years.

I felt I was making steady progress and my engagements seemed to reflect that to some degree. Mostly, my priority during this time was personal and not vocal. I was finally taking the time to do the work that I hadn’t been ready to do earlier, looking deeply at my personal patterns and history, and learning new, healthier ways of being.

Then, last year, when I wasn’t particularly looking for it, a friend e-mailed me to say that his voice teacher would be coming to the area to teach every other week and that I might like to have a lesson with him. The teacher wasn’t expensive and would be teaching very near to where I lived, so I thought, “Why not?”

I went to the lesson with few nerves, but once I started singing, I was quite nervous. I felt very exposed. As he played the exercises, the teacher craned his neck around the piano to watch me and check out my breathing. He put his hands on my jaw, checking for tongue tension. I enjoyed the work and thought it was useful vocally—but when I walked out of the lesson, I cried. I realized I had been missing a very specific sort of intimacy.

Soon after my previous teacher’s death, I had divorced my husband. He is also a musician and had watched my voice grow over many years. Along with my teacher, he had been my most trusted pair of external ears. After my teacher’s death and my divorce, I worked and sang in a certain kind of anonymity. I was performing frequently and getting good enough feedback, but I didn’t have that feeling of really being seen and understood vocally. So when I had that experience with the new teacher it was exciting, but scary. It took me almost two months after the first lesson to come to realize that I was once again ready for this sort of scrutiny.

So now, I’m back working with a teacher regularly. The changes in my voice are dramatic, and I’m very excited about the possibilities. I’m learning to have more ease and flexibility in my singing, more relaxation and continuous movement of the breath. And there’s something else. I’m bringing a lot more emotional presence to my singing and my work with the new teacher than I ever have before. My new teacher is very kind and emotionally present, and I feel safe to bring my entire self to the lesson.

When I first started to work in the new way, I felt a bit torn about my loyalty to my former teacher and his technique. What I’m doing now feels very different from what I did with him. My former teacher taught with an enormous amount of discipline. I went to my lessons regularly while my marriage was falling apart. Some days, I was in so much emotional pain, I didn’t think I could sing a note.

My teacher used to ask me to imagine that there was a large bucket outside the studio door. He said, “Leave all your problems in the bucket. You can pick them up on the way out.” It was a concept I valued enormously, and I have benefited from it over the years when I’ve had to sing on “bad” days. But now I can see that that sort of teaching was a reflection of my consciousness at the time. I still had a fairly conventional work ethic, one that encouraged compartmentalization. It’s considered normal in our culture to leave parts of ourselves behind when we go to work.

Nowadays, however, I’m not satisfied leaving anything behind. I want my life and my singing to reflect where I am as fully and completely as possible. As a result, a greater emotional truth seems to emerge in my lessons, and I think my singing is better for it.

I am inclined to believe this is a reflection of what I have or have not been ready for, rather than any capacity of my previous teachers. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I know what it’s like to see students’ personal issues holding them back by and at the same time know that they’re just not ready to “go there.”

Often, when we evaluate our own teacher or other singers’ teachers, we judge them by their students’ abilities or progress. Now, as both a longtime student and a teacher, I realize that in some sense, it is the student who determines the level of the teaching. If students are ready to challenge their old habits and achieve their potential, they will not stay with a teacher who does not honor that. And if a student is not ready to do that, a teacher will not be able to take them there, however competent that teacher may be.

Ultimately, a singer’s loyalty is not to any one teacher, however valued, but to the greatest realization of artistry and spiritual development. The choice of teacher is not the luck of the draw. It is a reflection of the level of one’s commitment to that truth.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.